Cats and Phonetics: Yep, can be done and has been done
This post could also have been titled ‘How to Combine Cats and Linguistics’ because this is what the Meowsic project does: namely, combining domestic cats and phonetics. Meowsic is short for ‘Melody in Human-Cat Communication’ and is a blending of the word music and the meowpheme meow.
We could have also named this section ‘It All Started with a Cheetah’ because the phonetic analysis of a cheetah’s purr compared to a domestic cat’s purr presented at a phonetics conference in 2010 was the trigger for Susanne Schötz to record the purr of her own cats and consider cat phonetics.
The Meowsic Project
The idea behind the project, running from 2016 to 2022, is to find out more about feline meow-music, which means cat intonation or melody in cat vocalisations. At the centre of the project are the feline vocalisations, voice, and melody in the vocalisations. The Meowsic project researches how cats vary their voice in terms of prosody – the pitch, rhythm, loudness -, the contexts and situations in which cats use different types of vocalisations, how humans perceive the variations in cat vocalisations, and how cats perceive human speech melody.
On the website www.meowsic.info, we can listen to the various cat vocalisations when we click on the tab ‘Cat Sounds’. In line with the phonetic basis of the research, the cat sounds are categorised depending on whether the cats have their mouths closed, they open and then close their mouth, or have their mouth open and tense when they produce their vocalisation. The categorisation is, thus, based on articulatory phonetics, which is the branch of phonetics dealing with how the sounds are produced by the speech organs.
As phonetics usually studies the language of humans and not of cats or other animals, there are no overarching cat-specific phonetic terms to describe cat sounds. While for human vowels for example, the established terms are ‘tongue height’, ‘lip rounding’, and ‘vowel quadrilateral’, there are none that apply specifically to the cats. Perhaps the name ‘mouth position’ could work as in ‘closed’, ‘opening-closing’, and ‘open tense’. Generally, there are ten main vocalisation types, two with a closed mouth, four with an opening-closing mouth, and four with an open tense mouth, namely purr, trill), meow, trill-meow, howl , the mating call, growl, hiss and spit, snarl, chirp and chatter. All these vocalisations are described in more detail in the following sections of the chapter.
The Meowsic project has been applying phonetic methods to analyse cat vocalisations, which brings cats and linguistics together. To be precise, not only cats but also other animals have been analysed phonetically by research, but the Meowsic project is dealing with cats Despite the differences in size and shape of feline and human vocal organs, cats and humans produce sounds in a similar way, which means that their speech sounds can be analysed in a similar way.
Phonetics and its Symbols
The International Phonetics Association provides the academic community with the International Phonetic Alphabet to describe the sounds in any given language. The IPA symbols are considered the standard.
The vowel chart represents the mouth; when we produce the vowels, we hold our jaw, lips, and tongue in a certain position.
The consonant chart also represents the mouth. The categories given refer to how we produce the consonant sounds.
The IPA provides more charts to include all other languages: the charts can be found on the website of the IPA: https://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/IPAcharts/IPA_chart_orig/IPA_charts_E.html